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Phil Lesh and Friends Freely Jamming Without Ego at Capitol Theatre

April 11th, 2014

Phil Lesh and Friends – Capitol Theatre – April 10, 2014

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Phil Lesh treats his band’s lineups much like the jams those groups end up playing: There are (probably) themes, riffs and improvisations underlying some grand design. Of course, some work better than others and stick together longer, but in the end, most of them deliver. This week at the Capitol Theatre, Lesh seems to have once again found magic, this time with his current group of Friends, running the gamut from Jackie Greene’s soulful, smooth vocals and blues-rock guitar to Marco Benevento’s indie-pop groove jazz keyboards to John Kadlecik’s singing and guitar playing, which ooze the Grateful Dead ethos for which Lesh continues to be the standard bearer. Bill Evans, who drifted on- and offstage at a rate of about every other song, added a saxophone to the mix. In between, Lesh and drummer Joe Russo formed a two-man Rosetta Stone, deciphering, decoding and interpreting so that the musical conversation formed a coherent dialogue.

Last night, the band got off to a rollicking start with the crowd favorite “Truckin’.” There were notable solos galore, too many to catalog, although I will note that Benevento particularly shined on the keys, which, in Lesh’s band, often has trouble finding moments in such a heavy guitar-bass-drums environment. Throughout the night, there were subtle pairings of musicians, conscious couplings with, for example, Benevento bantering with Kadlecik or the two guitars playing off each other. But the best parts were when everyone melded into a single entity, freely jamming without ego. There were two such moments in the first set, first a gorgeous, atmospheric noodle coming out of a cover of former-Friend Ryan Adams’ “Let It Ride.” The second was a highlight improv in the middle of “Cassidy,” spontaneous composition without a net

Often the best Grateful Dead moments weren’t the songs, but rather the spaces in between them, with the jam dividing “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider” a favorite historical example. On Thursday, Lesh took this to the extreme, placing not just a big jam in between those two songs, but the entire set. It was like looking at your fingernail beneath a microscope and discovering an altogether new universe. Along the way, the band hit on many themes and genres. There was the funk chunk of “Shakedown Street” led by Lesh’s elegant bass playing, with Greene eventually leading the band to an impromptu vamp on the Meters’ “Cissy Strut” and then a fantastic slide-guitar solo. There was the catchall rocker “New Speedway Boogie,” which contained its own multitudes, jams within jams, everyone getting their chance at the wheel. The high-paced “Caution” had Lesh and Russo banging out the theme while Greene did his best Pigpen imitation. The set ended in grand fashion, “Caution” leading into a charged version of the Dead’s take on “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” Kadlecik shining as he did all night, before the band moved into a wonderful “Terrapin Station,” Russo taking complete control of the Dead opus. Finally, the show closed with the predetermined sing-along “I Know You Rider,” like a wanderer returning from a journey around the world, none the worse for wear. —A. Stein

(Jackie Greene and Rich Robinson play Webster Hall on 6/15.)